Professor, students team up on mathematical epidemiology research

Dr. Elsa Schaefer loves to help students think ambitiously, especially when it comes to the contributions they can make in their field. An excellent way to do that, she’s learned, is to involve them in research.

“Many students who don’t necessarily love the classroom love doing research,” the professor of mathematics says. “Often when they see how the two connect it helps them appreciate things they previously thought were boring.”

Her latest project involves fighting the spread of the West Nile Virus. Working with a team from Virginia Commonwealth University studying American robins, along with an entomologist working on mosquito abatement in Louisiana, Schaefer and her students use optimal control theory to determine the best way to limit the virus’ spread.

“Optimal control theory can help us do things like quantify whether a more-expensive treatment, such as avian vaccination versus the cheaper application of insecticide, is effective enough to warrant the costs,” Schaefer says.

The work includes two Marymount undergraduates, Shonell Moses and Bernadette Wunderly, both juniors who are being paid through a grant.  A volunteer undergraduate from Washington College – who happens to be Schaefer’s daughter – completes the team.

“Most of our work is done from Arlington, though the group got to travel to VCU to meet with the biology group that’s trying to find bird nests,” Schaefer says. “I know from experience that those sort of trips make the research more tangible.”

“I really love mathematical epidemiology,” Schaefer says. “I get to play with models that help me understand the real world and to use it to make suggestions that have a real value.”

She’s also studied models of cholera and tick-borne diseases.

Schaefer has worked with students on research for a dozen years.

“I’ve learned the most important thing is to make sure they enjoy the work,” she says. “Then it becomes their own project and we get better results.”

Schaefer, who earned her bachelor of science degree from Agnes Scott College and her Ph.D. from Emory University, sees an additional benefit: “Including students in my research also makes my career a lot more fun!”